The “Boston Marriage” of Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown

Oct 26, 2021

By: Tirzah Frank

Edith Guerrier begins her autobiography “It is good to be alive! That is how I feel today, and that is how I felt

Headshot of a woman looking at the camera in sepia tones.

Edith Guerriere, 1917/18

seventy-seven years ago when, at the age of three, I ran away, taking as baggage my toothbrush.” She goes on to describe this early trip past the end of her driveway (and on her way to a life in Fairyland) as her “first great adventure.” [1] It was far from her last. Guerrier was born in 1870, lost her mother at the age of three, and then bounced around between her father and other relatives, accepting each change as a new adventure. Her adventurous spirit would lead her to the North Bennet Street Industrial School and the Boston Public Library, where she ran girls’ clubs for young first- and second-generation immigrants and ultimately co-founded Paul Revere Pottery with her partner Edith Brown and their benefactor Helen Osborne Storrow.

After a childhood full of transition, Guerrier attended the Vermont Methodist Seminary and Female College. Following her graduation, she decided to be an artist and enrolled in the Museum School of Art in Boston in 1891.[2] Unfortunately, she had to drop out due to insufficient funds, but not before meeting Edith Brown. Edith Guerrier and her father quickly moved into rooms next to Edith Brown and her sister, and the two Ediths were nearly inseparable from then on.[3]

To make ends meet in her twenties, Guerrier got a job at the North Bennet Street Industrial School nursery. After some years in the nursery, she was put in charge of a variety of girls’ clubs and the girls’ reading room, serving primarily the children of Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants.[4] On her rationale for the clubs, Guerrier writes, “I argued somewhat as follows, ‘I know life has far more to offer than I have yet found. Undoubtedly these girls feel the same way about it. Perhaps we can find together the key to some secret garden in which we can profitably enjoy ourselves.’”[5] This collaborative approach proved enormously successful. As a result of her reading room work, Guerrier also became a librarian with the Boston Public Library and met Helen Osborne Storrow, a wealthy, progressive philanthropist who would fund much of Edith’s work.[6]

Each girls’ club Guerrier led was named for the evening it met, so there were Monday Evening Girls, Tuesday Evening Girls, and so on, all the way to Saturday. The Saturday Evening Girls (S.E.G.) were the oldest, made up of women who were twenty or older. They formed their club after regularly attending Guerrier’s story hour, which she started to encourage better reading habits in young girls.[7] The S.E.G. eventually began producing their own newspaper, the S.E.G. News, to which Guerrier was a regular contributor.[8] After several years of leading the clubs, Guerrier and Brown partnered with Helen Osborne Storrow to form Paul Revere Pottery, so named due to their headquarters’ proximity to the Old North Church, which was “famous since the night of 18 April 1775” when Paul Revere made his ride to Lexington.[9] The pottery provided the girls with training and a source of income.[10]

Guerrier worked with the clubs from 1899 to 1917, when they were interrupted by World War I. To support the cause, she volunteered for clerical service and ended up going to Washington, DC, to work for the Food Administration.[11] After the war, she returned to her role as a librarian until she was seventy, when she was asked to retire. Her return was short lived, however, as World War II brought her back to work as a librarian for the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, but once that war was over she retired for good.[12] On her eightieth birthday, a group of former Saturday Evening Girls organized an event in her honor. Guerrier ends her autobiography with the story:

Along came the birthday that recorded my fourscore years, and also the fifty-first anniversary of the library story-hour group. The members of that first group and members of succeeding groups gathered…. As I blew out the lighted candles representing the years on the anniversary cake, I knew that while the flames might be blown out, the happy memories of the years would never be extinguished.[13]

Edith Guerrier passed away in 1958 when she was eighty-eight.

In her long life, Guerrier saw massive societal changes, experiencing both World Wars, the United States’s transition from relatively open to highly restrictive immigration policies, growing opportunities for women’s employment outside the home, and the development of the concept of homosexuality. This last change is particularly pertinent to Guerrier’s life, because she and Edith Brown were in what was colloquially known as a “Boston marriage.” This kind of relationship, where “unmarried women often coupled together as long-term companions, sharing their lives, their homes, their finances, and quite often their beds,” was very common during Guerrier’s lifetime.[14] The Ediths lived and worked together for decades, and clearly loved each other deeply.

While the temptation can be strong to apply more modern terms like lesbians to obviously devoted companions like “the Ediths,” it is important to consider that they may not have used such language themselves. The concept of homosexuality as an identity (rather than a set of behaviors) formed during Edith’s lifetime, and both the term homosexual and the term lesbian initially had quite different meanings than we ascribe to them today. In early use, homosexuality was seen in a very negative light, and associated with “urban environments, racial minorities, and the lower classes.”[15] Similarly, “the lesbian label was often applied to black and working-class women who were already associated with criminality and prostitution…. White middle-class women rarely claimed lesbianism as an identity before the 1940s.”[16] Thus, even if Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown were what we would today understand as lesbians, they would likely not have related to the term, much less used it to describe themselves.

It is also important to consider that Edith Guerrier was an example of a “new woman,” a member of the first generation of white, middle-class women who could afford to skip marriage in favor of having careers, often in the arena of social service. In some cases, including Guerrier’s, these women were helped by wealthy benefactors.[17] Women were starting to have more economic opportunities, but it was still difficult for a single woman to survive alone, so there was an economic incentive for women to pair up. While some of these pairs had romantic and sexual relationships, others did not—and it is usually impossible to know.[18]

After homosexuality was defined, there was a period of increased scrutiny, especially of working-class people. Close relationships between middle-class women like the Ediths escaped suspicion for longer than many other potentially homosexual relationships that attracted public suspicion, however. Even when such scrutiny did arise in the 1920s, “societal pressure was not severe enough to separate the women involved or bring criminal repercussions.”[19] Guerrier and Brown lived together until 1932 when Brown passed away, so it is possible that they were subjected to some degree of scrutiny. Guerrier lived until 1958, so she may also have been aware of the changing nature of sexuality-related terms. However, neither Guerrier’s autobiography nor the scholarship about her makes reference to such issues, so we can only speculate.

In the absence of sources clearly delineating the precise nature of Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown’s relationship, I will leave you with the sources we do have. In her autobiography, Edith describes their first meeting thus:

I longed for companionship and, day after day, walked in my rest periods about the corridors of the museum, searching for someone my own age who did not look prosperous. At last I found what I sought. A pretty young thing, shy as a fawn, stood day after day with her eyes fixed on her work…. One day, in passing her easel, I spoke to her. She replied without raising her eyes. Every day after that first time, I spoke, and before long Edith Brown and I began taking walks together on Sunday afternoons.[20]

From then on, variations of the phrase “Edith and I” appear frequently, as the Ediths moved into different living quarters, went on vacations, worked at the North Bennet Street School, and started Paul Revere Pottery. In one example, Guerrier notes that when her father was ailing “Mrs. Storrow, who knew something of my troubles, decided to send Edith and me off for a vacation,” which may indicate that Storrow saw the Ediths as a package deal.[21]

In a special 1952 edition of the S.E.G. News, former editor-in-chief Fanny Goldstein writes, “We pay tribute to our beloved and inspired founder, Edith Guerrier, who has stood by us for so many years. We recall her dear, faithful comrade, Edith Brown—the gentle friend, the constant soft-toned lady, who ever smoothed our ruffled moods in those early years.”[22] Clearly, both Guerrier and Brown made a strong impression on the S.E.G., as did their companionship.

And finally, reflecting on her retirement, Edith Guerrier writes:

In looking ahead, all my plans had been made with regard to the things my dearly beloved comrade and I would do together, but before that time came Edith had passed into the next life. After nearly forty years of closest companionship, I was left to face retirement alone, never doubting, however, that she still lived vitally and radiantly beyond this bourne of Time and Place.[23]

Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, these quotes reveal that the Ediths were central to each other’s lives, and the people around them knew and respected that.

Tirzah Frank is a M.A. Candidate in History with Graduate Certificates in Public History and Arts Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Tirzah served as a 2021 Summer Intern at the PRMA.

[1] Edith Guerrier, An Independent Woman: The Autobiography of Edith Guerrier, ed. Molly Matson (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 2.

[2] Margaret Bausman, “A Case Study of the Progressive Era Librarian Edith Guerrier: The Public Library, Social Reform, ‘New Women,’ and Urban Immigrant Girls,” Library & Information History 32.4 (2016): 276-77.

[3] Guerrier, 66-67.

[4] Guerrier, 64, 68; Kate Clifford Larson, “The Saturday Evening Girls: A Progressive Era Library Club and the Intellectual Life of Working Class and Immigrant Girls in Turn-of-the-Century Boston,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 71.2 (2001): 198.

[5] Guerrier, 68.

[6] Guerrier, 72.

[7] Guerrier, 79.

[8] Fanny Goldstein, ed., S.E.G. News, vols. 3-5, November 1914-June 1917,

[9] Guerrier, 87.

[10] Molly Matson, “Introduction,” in An Independent Woman, xxxiv-xxxv.

[11] Guerrier, 97-98.

[12] Guerrier, 127-29.

[13] Guerrier, 132-33.

[14] Susan Ferentinos, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 53.

[15] Ferentinos, 57.

[16] Estelle B. Freedman, “‘The Burning of Letters Continues’: Elusive Identities and the Historical Construction of Sexuality,” Journal of Women’s History 9.4 (1998): 185.

[17] Sarah Deutsch, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 104-5.

[18] Ferentinos, 53-54.

[19] Ferentinos, 59.

[20] Guerrier, 66.

[21] Guerrier, 83.

[22] Edith Guerrier and Fanny Goldstein, eds., “S.E.G. News: A supplement to the official Library Club Bulletin published by the Saturday Evening Girls formerly a Boston Public Library group of the North End of Boston, Massachusetts” (1952).

[23] Guerrier, 127.